Cosmic Voyage / Cosmic Journey / The Space Voyage / The Space Ship / Kosmicheskiy Reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella (1936) ***½
While discussing Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, I mentioned that the Soviets held their science fiction movies in considerably higher regard than we in the West held ours up until the late 1960’s. Cosmic Voyage shows just how seriously the genre was taken in the Soviet Union, and gives some idea of how early that attitude developed. In the very same year that Flash Gordon first donned his celebrated silver underwear to save the Earth from an interplanetary version of the Yellow Peril, one cheating cliffhanger at a time, Russia’s official state film studio, Mosfilm, was bringing in rocketry godfather Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to serve as technical consultant and miniature designer for a big-budget adaptation of his own novel, Outside the Earth. Not only that, the impetus for Cosmic Voyage’s creation came from no less lofty a patron than the directorate of the Communist Youth League (or Komsomol), which wanted an engaging movie to help inspire children with visions of the adventures they might hope to have one day while participating in the great Socialist enterprise. It’s hard to imagine a movie getting much more powerful backing than that!
The plot contours of this movie— and even many of the minor story details— bear a remarkable resemblance to those of Destination Moon, the keystone film of Hollywood’s later sci-fi efflorescence, a resemblance which is doubly remarkable for the fact that the American picture’s creators most likely never saw Cosmic Voyage. The year is 1946 (just two Five-Year Plans away!), and at the Tsiolkovsky Center for Space Exploration, preparations are well underway for an expedition to the moon. A huge ramp of scaffolding, like a roller coaster with no dips, stretches out from the center’s main building and into the sky. Inside are the vehicles that will one day ride the great ramp— the rocketships Joseph Stalin and Klim Voroshilov. The gleaming vessels are the brainchildren of Professor Pavel Ivanovich Sedikh (Sergei Komarov, from The Death Ray and The Secret of Two Oceans), but it is not he who directs the work at the space center. Rather, the top man on the project is the more bureaucratically minded Professor Karin (Vasili Kovrigin), who does not completely trust Sedikh. Sedikh is unquestionably a genius, but he is an impatient, erratic genius— not content to design the moon rockets, he wants to pilot the first one as well. This is a potential problem for two reasons. First off, the Tsiolkovsky Center already has a pilot picked out, an Air Army captain named Viktor Orlov (Nikolai Feoktistov), and on a program as complicated and risky as this one, orderly adherence to procedure remains important no matter how rapidly the state is supposed to be withering away. But the bigger issue is that of the exploding bunny-heart. Sensibly enough, while Sedikh labored to perfect the manned rockets, Karin led an effort to create test vehicles for the launch, some of which would carry a live animal into space for a short time before returning home. Well, test rocket #128 has just come back, and its lab rabbit passenger is dead of cardiac rupture. Sedikh’s protests that he is not a rabbit, and therefore has nothing to worry about, are less persuasive than he seems to believe.
Now obviously a brilliant mind like Sedikh’s is much too valuable to the space program for Karin to allow him to risk his life by piloting the first manned moon rocket. With that in mind, Karin goes to Orlov with a proposal to move the launch schedule up a few days without telling the old man. Orlov is much younger, stronger, and healthier than Sedikh, and even if the worst happens, and his heart goes kerplooie on liftoff, Orlov’s death would be a much less serious blow to the project than Sedikh’s. Viktor agrees completely, and begins his preparations.
There’s just one thing Karin hasn’t reckoned on. Viktor’s little brother, Andryusha (Vassili Gaponenko), is a devoted admirer of Sedikh’s, and he thinks Karin’s sensible plan to outmaneuver the professor’s reckless streak is dirty pool. The way Andryusha sees it, they’re Sedikh’s rockets. He designed them, he oversaw their construction, and he should fucking well be the first to ride one of them to the moon! Andryusha sneaks out of the dormitory where he lives with the other members of the Young Astronomers Union, and scales the hill to Sedikh’s house, where he lets himself in through the window to the professor’s study, and fills his mentor in on what Karin and Orlov are planning. Conspiracy, of course, is a game that two can play, and Sedikh launches a counterplot with Andryusha to ensure that he goes to the moon the very next evening. Sedikh hands Andryusha a signed note giving him and the rest of the Young Astronomers permission to tour the hangar complex. The mob of boys will strategically position themselves as an obstacle between the Stalin and anyone but Sedikh who tries to board it— or anyone who tries to stop him from boarding. Meanwhile, Sedikh recruits Karin’s own assistant (and Viktor’s girlfriend), Marina (Ksenia Moskalenko), to be his copilot. The only hitch in the following night’s execution of Sedikh’s daring scheme comes when Andryusha takes advantage of the chaos accompanying Karin’s arrival to stow away aboard the rocket himself.
No, the real trouble doesn’t arise until the Stalin reaches the moon. Sedikh may, on an intellectual level, know everything there is to know about the rocket, but he’s no pilot. He brings the ship in for a very rough landing, and on the wrong side of the moon, at that! And because the plan for the mission involved setting up an enormous beacon to announce a successful landing to the folks back at Tsiolkovsky, the miscalculated landing is hardly a trivial matter. So let’s see, Doc… You’ve banged up the ship you spent so much time, money, and energy building; you’ve turned accomplishing the one specific task envisioned by the mission plan from a minor chore into an epic quest; and you’ve fixed it so that you have absolutely no way of contacting home without trekking halfway around the circumference of a good-sized astral body. Well, at least you didn’t get yourself and your two young companions actually stuck on the moon. That would really have sucked, right? Oh, wait. The Stalin’s main oxygen tank was damaged in the damn-near-a-crash landing, and there isn’t enough left after Sedikh and Marina fix the leak to last the whole trip home. Nice going, there, Pavel Ivanovich! Better get a move on with that hike to the other side of the moon— looks like a message to Karin is just about the only hope for you, Marina, and Andryusha now.
Cosmic Voyage is a lot of fun, on a number of levels. To begin with, it does an extraordinary job of melding juvenile adventure with serious science fiction, credibly realizing the Komsomol’s hopes for it. (Or seemingly so, anyway. More on this later.) Andryusha makes for a plucky and resourceful identification figure for the kids in the audience, without ever unbalancing the film or driving adult viewers to despair like most of his counterparts in Western or Japanese sci-fi movies. He may have the inevitable mischievous invention that winds up being the key to several major plot developments, but the contraption in question is something that a boy his age and with his resources might plausibly have devised, and it’s halfway logical that such a thing would come in handy in a variety of situations. (I also appreciate the insight that Andryusha’s little gadget is frequently most useful in roles other than that for which he designed it.) The other principal characters are colorful enough to make nearly any kid go, “Oh, hey! I hope I get to hang out with people like this when I grow up!” with Sergei Komarov’s Sedikh coming across like the ideal eccentric uncle and Ksenia Moskalenko’s Marina being both appealingly tomboyish and an unbelievable cutie. The occasional comedy bits are well integrated with the larger story, and even more remarkably, they’re actually funny much of the time. My favorite is the running gag about Mrs. Sedikh and the professor’s valenki (winter boots made from heavy felt, prized by the Russians for their warmth and near-total imperviousness to water). On the night of the moon launch, Mrs. Sedikh races to the space center with her husband’s valenki, and when questioned by the guard outside, she proclaims, “My old man decided to go to the moon last night! It’s minus-270 degrees up there, and he forgot to pack his winter boots!” Mrs. Sedikh and the valenki will continue to pop up in one way or another at the oddest of times throughout the remainder of the film.
Cosmic Voyage also maintains a very high technical standard. The rather whimsical sets for the lunar surface are suitably inspiring of gleeful wonder, without being totally indefensible on the basis of what the moon looks like from Earth. Then there are the masses of miniature sets and models, the best of which are in the same class as Eiji Tsubaraya’s finest work from the mid-1960’s. Those models and miniatures (in addition to the source novel) were Tsiolkovsky’s contribution to Cosmic Voyage, and they consequently display an unusual amount of scientific rigor in their design. The Stalin and Voroshilov are multi-stage rockets, a piece of realism that would never become really widespread in science fiction movies, even after a decade’s worth of televised Apollo launches familiarized practically everybody who had access to a TV set with the concept. The titanic ski-jump at the Tsiolkovsky Center was far off-base as a prediction of how real-world space flight would operate, but it makes excellent sense given the low-power rocketry of the 1930’s. The use of fluid-filled compartments to shield the crew against the stresses of takeoff and landing is an interesting idea— albeit one that could have ugly unintended consequences during a hard landing, since compressional waves (like shockwaves) travel faster the denser their medium becomes. The space suits, too, reflect a greater degree of thought put into them than was customary even twenty years later. They’re a little silly-looking, and the placement of the air hoses is an invitation to disaster, but the very fact that they have visible air hoses is a step above the norm; other details, like the radio transceivers enabling the cosmonauts to communicate with each other, or the detachable lead boot-soles enabling more or less normal walking in a low-gravity environment, are on a whole other level of scientific veracity.
Finally, there’s the stop-motion animation to consider. Obviously, the requirement that the main characters seem nearly weightless for much of the film presented a sizeable technical challenge. The problem could be solved to some extent by swinging the actors around on cranes or by making odd motions with the camera, but there was a limit to how much could be achieved that way. What the makers of Cosmic Voyage did to cover the difference was to use animation for all the long-distance shots of the cosmonauts getting about on the lunar surface. To modern eyes, the result looks more than a little goofy. Russia apparently had no animator of Willis O’Brien’s caliber in 1936, and the moonwalk scenes have a very cartoony feel. Personally, I found the slightly crude animation effects charming, but I can see how other viewers might not.
The Communist Party’s arbiters of culture certainly weren’t charmed. Nowhere in the world could you have found a more hardened bunch of determinedly humorless old grumps, and they interpreted the animated footage as frivolous— and worse yet, as contrary to the dictates of Socialist Realism. The animator’s name was stricken from the credits, and Cosmic Voyage was pulled from circulation after a very brief run in Russian theaters. So much for the Komsomol’s fabulous recruiting tool, huh? What I find interesting about this development is that it would be the animation that got under the Party officials’ skin. It’s so innocuous, and there’s so much else for Communist totalitarians to get pissed off about in this movie! I mean, the three heroes of the film all distinguish themselves by rebelling against the carefully orchestrated, top-down Kameradshaft of the space program, forging ahead in a spirit of unfettered individualism. It’s almost exactly the same as General Thayer’s frustrated withdrawal to the private sector in Destination Moon, a picture that would surely have been condemned as “counterrevolutionary,” or “right-deviationist,” or some other such jargoniferous claptrap had it been produced by Soviet filmmakers. In any case, Cosmic Voyage was rarely, if ever, seen again until 1984, when it was somewhat surprisingly restored and re-released, with an on-film musical track added. (Cosmic Voyage was originally completely silent, Soviet cinematic technology in the mid-30’s apparently lagging a good ten years behind that in the West.) Considering what Stalin and his minions usually did when works of art displeased them in some way, it’s pretty impressive that Cosmic Voyage (or any of the people who worked on it) survived at all.